US-Chinese relations: why things just keep getting sharper

President Trump’s press conference on the 29th May has set the scene for even more dangerous US-Sino relations. He claimed that China was effectively responsible for the 100,000 American COVID-19 deaths, has ‘ripped off’ the US economy and ‘stolen jobs.’

While he is hoping that this might play well domestically, it seems inevitable that a new stage in his trade war with China will be unleashed. If we step back a little, strip away the rhetoric of threat and counter-threat, then we might get to the essence of the problem.

There are certain self-evident truths about this 21st century. The world is dominated by two rival economic powers. The United States, while in deep denial, is in steady decline. China is not waiting meekly in the wings but is making a grand entrance as the next rising star. The two nations have vastly different historical and ideological backgrounds but remain linked by one identical capitalist ethos. Politically and socially they are poles apart. They are the same and yet so different. These two giants inevitably seem set to clash. Why? Each desires to bestride the global economy like a latter-day colossus. It is what unites them, and not what separates them that finally acts as the great point of friction.

Samuel Huntington wrote authoritatively on what he described as the clash of civilisations. He based many of his arguments on the premise that, in the post-cold war era, the fundamental source of conflict would be found not in ideological or political difference, nor around economic questions, but rather through issues broadly defined as cultural. So much of the discourse surrounding China and how to deal with it has followed this proposition of Huntington’s. It is in the cultural differences, a rather different world view, a specifically Chinese ‘way’ of perceiving history that is promoted by our political leaders and media. By promoting ‘difference’ it is so much easier to vilify and demonise; to discover a reason to be distrustful and to take what are really unnecessary sides. Huntington, in defining the causes of future conflicts as being predicated on ‘cultural’ differences was fundamentally mistaken.

Graham Alison (Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?) describes what he sees as Xi Jinping’s ‘vision’ for China as one that ‘combines prosperity and power … it captures the intense yearning of a billion Chinese: to be rich, to be powerful, and to be respected. Xi exudes supreme confidence that in his lifetime China can realize all three by sustaining its economic miracle, fostering a patriotic citizenry, and bowing to no other power in world affairs’. There is in that description a remarkable similarity with how the United States has traditionally seen itself and its place in the world. Alison argues that both the United States and China share a sense of exceptionalism. It could hardly be any other way. The promotion of an intensely nationalist world view on the part of both nations has played a role.

China’s journey over the past century has, ostensibly, been a different one to that undertaken by the USA and yet the leaderships of each nation, regardless of cultural, political, or historical differences, appreciate and recognise the motivations and aspirations of the other without recourse to any ‘cultural awareness’ programs. It is not culture that separates these two giants. What drives them apart, what makes enemies of the two, are the very similarities of economic aspiration. Those aspirations drive political and foreign policy agendas.

The perception that each nation has about their role in the world impels one state to seek to maintain supremacy and the other to assume supremacy. The strength of each economy, relative to the other, is what is motivating foreign policy and worryingly, military doctrine. Statistics can so often be misleading but in May 2020, the International Comparison Program (ICP), a statistical organisation, partnered by many financial institutions and guided by the World Bank, announced that technically China has overtaken the US as a financial and economic power. The ICP can now state that for the first time, China’s total real income is marginally larger than the US. It is a statistic that seems to be motivating some of the United States’ posturing and trade war policies in the most recent past.

If the causes of friction are economic, what is to be done? The simple answer, given the driving compulsion of capitalist power, is very little. The ‘game’ that is being played has only one rule and that is win, by whatever means. Winning is all and there is no ‘runner-up’ prize. China maintains a degree of state-control of its economy, is an authoritarian regime and a one-party state, but this does not fundamentally alter the fact that Chinese capitalism is, at the end of the day, simply capitalism. The United States might allow for internal criticism (although this is more and more being called into question) and be a more ‘open’ society, but the real difference between these two players is in how each manoeuvres its pieces on the board.

If the prize is global economic power, then it appears that China will ‘win’ the game. This opens up a whole range of questions that need to be considered. How would Chinese capitalist domination affect global capitalism? Global capital is already integrated with no national allegiance. Business will do what it is already doing. Nation-state alliances are quite another thing. For some states it might mean accepting a paradigm shift. For others, more closely entrenched with the declining power, it might mean a real or perceived loss. The United States is unlikely to accept that its time had come. Economic war, trade war, dislocation and the potential for actual war cannot be discounted. China, for its part, would be unlikely to accept such threats. In a world of pandemics, climate change and economic crisis, the future, regardless of who ‘wins’, is bleak indeed.

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Dr William Briggs is a political economist. His special areas of interest lie in political theory and international political economy. He has been, variously, a teacher, journalist and political activist.

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